Etiquette of life and death

When I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, I was just down the hill from Lake View Cemetery where President Garfield and several other notables from history were buried.  This proximity caused my first realization that cemeteries were tourist attractions.  I’ve lived in Europe, so I’m not sure how I was blithely unaware of this fact.  I even visited Jefferson’s grave when I lived in Charlottesville.  I think the difference was that I didn’t go to a location just to visit the cemetery.  The graveyard was always tangential to another purpose — visiting Monticello or admiring mosaics in a church.

Lake View Cemetery was a celebration of nature, with 285 acres of grounds and hundreds of different plants.  I thought it was strange when I learned to drive stick shift there; it’s a cemetery after all.  But I also considered my retreat into solitude for this learning experience to be a public service.  Without the likelihood of damage to person or property, I was free practice getting into first gear and trying to not roll back on hills.  The fact that almost no one was around saved my pride too.  I was a slow learner.

After I was more comfortable simply being in the cemetery for non-death reasons, I started jogging there from time to time.  It was beautiful, and I always brought a map so I wouldn’t get lost on the circuitous roads which were almost indistinguishable from each other.  This may be a slight exaggeration – I didn’t have a great sense of direction, so it’s quite possible that the roads were more navigable than I credited.  Although I would chuckle at the morbid practicality of the sign on the smaller cemetery next door advertising “free fill dirt,” I never really forgot where I was; that I was surrounded by death.  Even though I was not in the cemetery to visit its occupants, I hoped that a salute to life through attempted fitness would be an appropriate homage.

In New Orleans, the cemetery was a celebration of structures.  What was normally a simple maze of paths and roads was elevated (literally) to become a true labyrinth.  Monuments rising above the ground were cultural imports from European and South American immigration, with the added benefit of combating the high water table in the region.  The monuments were made of stone, marble, or bricks and stucco, and insulated from the common occurrence of flooding.  I wanted to see the art and beauty of the stonework, but I felt … awkward.  How could I maintain a sense of decorum and not accidentally disrespect the nature of the place?  How was tourism compatible with a place of death and grief?

I looked up cemetery etiquette, and found quite simple instructions: don’t be a jerk.  That’s it.  The rest were just particulars.

  • Read the posted cemetery rules, and follow them (including hours open to the public – you are not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and there is no need to be in a cemetery after dusk);
  • Take care to not damage anything, including if you are on a quest to memorialize what you’ve visited and observed;
  • Do not leave anything behind except tokens or flowers for a loved one;
  • Do not take anything, except photographs;
  • Contact the person in charge of the cemetery if there is a problem;
  • Be sympathetic and considerate with your behavior and noise level, including for example, control of the wiley youth who may accompany you, or turning down your car stereo as you drive through the grounds;
  • Try not to walk over graves;
  • Keep pets on leashes and clean up after them (if they are permitted on the grounds);
  • Leave other people alone – they may be visiting for a different reason than you;
  • Don’t touch anything if you don’t need to because items may be old and frail;
  • Don’t take photos of people or funerals.

Basically, use common sense and treat the place as if your parents are buried there (parents that you like and get along with – this is not a loophole!).

I visited the St. Louis Cemetery #1 with tour guide Kathy from Free Tours by Foot – New Orleans.  Due to vandalism and other assorted issues (e.g. the filing of Easy Rider), the Catholic Church posted a guard and closed this cemetery unless accompanied by a registered guide.  As a small practical tip, if you do not pay the $2 fee by paypal when you sign up online, your reservation doesn’t finalize and you’d better hope the group isn’t full (usually this company gives walking tours without charge, but this cemetery is an exception).  The tour was worth it.  Kathy was local, had great personality and flare, and was extremely well informed.  She proclaimed: “I don’t do stories; I do truth. In a story form.”  Of the Nicholas Cage monument (acquired and renovated by the actor after Katrina), she noted dryly: “His name is going to go where that lipstick is.”  Sure enough, there were lipstick marks on the grave monument.

The most interesting, if macabre, bit of history she told us concerned the repeated use of the monuments.  The mourning period (in which you could not disturb remains) was a year and a day.  Therefore, if you had a family monument with 3 casket slots, and there was great sickness in your family (such as the ubiquitous summertime killer, yellow fever), you had to rent other areas until the year and a day ran for both the person in the monument and the later decedent.  After a year and a day (from death), they would open the monument, take out the remnants of the casket (if one had been used) and brush the remains to the back of the casket shelf.  Once the rented slot had run a year and a day, they would move the remains to the family monument, and repeat the allocation.  The monuments were 10 feet long (hence the phrase “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole”), so there was room in each casket shelf for several remains.  Some monuments also featured holes in the back of the 10-foot slot so that when the remains were swept to the back, they would drop off the shelf into a cavo (basically a pit underneath the casket slots where all remains of the family could accumulate).  This design was not just due to economy of space; it was clear that the family could be, and wanted to be, together in the afterlife.  It was a party.

There are several notable cemeteries in New Orleans, but I am a law nerd, and I chose to go to the St. Louis Cemetery #1 because I wanted to see the grave of Homer Plessy.  In 1892, Homer Plessy was recruited by a local civil rights group to deliberately violate an 1890 Louisiana law which restricted certain railroad cars to people classified as white.  Plessy’s phenotype was white, but he was classified as “1/8 black” under the law.  In 1896, the Supreme Court (which at that time was slanted towards segregationist policy) decided against the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled it constitutional to provide facilities that were “separate but equal.”  This resulted in legalized segregation in the entire United States until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned the reasoning in Plessy because the facilities were separate, but not equal.

In our current political climate, with a seat on the Supreme Court available, and others possibly available soon, I was struck by a deep sense of history.  The members of the Court are human, and shaped by the culture around them, as well as their individual beliefs.  Our society is polemical and at a turning point, and the more the Court is out of balance (in either direction), the more danger our society is in: what other issues can be (and will be) decided that will take 60 years, or more, to alter?  How will this influence the framework of our society?  Homer Plessy died at the young age of 63, after he purposefully thrust himself into litigation; however, his case only served to validate (on a nationwide level) the very racism he attempted to halt.  He must have had a very difficult life in those 29 years after the Supreme Court ruled against him.

Tension still exists in New Orleans, which has pockets of neighborhoods which are commonly labelled as bad, gentrified, or in the process of being gentrified.  There is a threat of crime in any one of these types of neighborhoods, but in some areas the danger is more expected than others.  Magnolia and I accidentally walked through a bad neighborhood in New Orleans.  My friends warned me to be careful because of the possibility of crime, and they were quite aggravated at me for this disclosure.  However, when I was going from point A to point B, my maps app on my iPhone did not distinguish on the basis of safe or unsafe areas.

As I walked, I noticed that many houses were in great disrepair.  Windows were routinely broken or boarded up, doors were missing, and patios were propped up by long 4x4s to keep them from collapsing.  These homes still bore the hallmarks of Louisiana architecture, but the bold colors and flourishes of adornment were faded and cracked.  I didn’t know if these homes were victims of age, storms, or poverty.  However, on certain streets, the structural atrophy was so severe, it was almost a house graveyard.  I thought of cemetery etiquette, and although the contrast of architectural grandeur and structural ruin was strikingly beautiful, I did not take any pictures.  It seemed disrespectful and rude for a stranger to casually highlight such private destruction.

I was listening to a Paul Simon-inspired mix as Magnolia and I walked, and the broken, overgrown area took an idyllic quality.  The oversized sidewalk-gravel were diamonds under my shoes, I wanted to call everyone Al, and soft melodic voices with relatable lamentations lent romantic-colored glasses to my promenade.  However, I picked up on the context clues that this area was not suitable to walk through with only a poofie dog as company.  The smattering of people I ran into on the street were kind and complemented my cute little Magnolia (I’m biased, but she’s adorable).  I also got several “What the F*** are you doing here” looks, but not words.  Not many people were around.  As I progressed to a more publicly frequented street, I realized that several of these dilapidated homes were still inhabited.  They were not dying structures, but contained vitality and life; joy and growth.  This juxtaposition enabled an understanding that there was also an etiquette of life.  Although I was technically correct in my application of etiquette, I had erred in my assessment of demise.

I’ve seen a few sides to New Orleans since I moved here.  There is a celebratory lifestyle of flowing booze and rich food, pride in the city and its heritage, as well as a strong sense of family and a love of dogs.  Another aspect of this city is survival amidst diversity and destruction.  I look forward to discovering more; however, this particular observation of vitality and survival imprinted on me like a gravestone, with a lasting and final impression of New Orleans.

— Your huckleberry

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